Interview'We're either pro-Trump or pro-democracy, we can't be both'

Trump impeachment witness Alexander Vindman to ToI: America can handle the truth

As the retired lieutenant colonel releases ‘Here, Right Matters: An American Story,’ he discusses growing up as a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant and the values that led him to testify

National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

NEW YORK — As a boy growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Alexander Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny were in constant motion, scaling lifeguard towers and jumping onto the sand below or playing endless games of stickball.

It was that predisposition for adventure and camaraderie that led Vindman into a lifetime of national service, including a tour in Iraq. And it was because of that service, which meant taking an oath to defend the United States Constitution, that the now-retired US Army lieutenant colonel felt duty-bound to report the phone call that led to former president Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

“I think it’s important to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the events. The ‘why’ can be somewhat technical — presidential corruption, the way the president was undermining US national security rather than advancing it,” Vindman, 46, told The Times of Israel in a wide-ranging interview at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York shortly before he’d take the stage to discuss his new memoir, “Here, Right Matters: An American Story.”

“But the ‘how’ is, to me, a more interesting and important story. It’s about what the moments were in my upbringing and my life, from the coming here as an immigrant and a refugee to the decades of military service. It’s about what I learned about leadership and ethics and values,” he said.

Vindman was born in 1975 to Jewish parents in then-Soviet Ukraine. In 1979, systemic antisemitism in Ukraine led Vindman’s father Semyon to flee with the 3-year-old twins, Vindman’s older brother Len and their grandmother. Vindman’s mother had died a short time before. They arrived in the United States with only their suitcases and $750.

As Vindman recounts in his book, his father worked several jobs to support the small family while learning English at night. Throughout Vindman’s childhood his father stressed the importance of fully integrating into their newly adopted country.

Alexander Vindman at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, October 27, 2021. (Ari Goldstein)

Along the way Vindman said he learned important lessons about respect for the truth, service, leadership and accountability — at the Jewish school he attended before starting public school at P.S. 105 in Brooklyn, during his college years at SUNY Binghamton and graduate studies at Harvard University, and finally during his deployments to Korea and then Iraq, where he received a Purple Heart.

In the end, Vindman said there was never really a choice about whether to report Trump’s July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — in which the former US president pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democrats — and testify before Congress. It was simply his duty as a naturalized citizen and member of the armed forces.

After his testimony Vindman experienced partisan attacks on his record and loyalty, as well as antisemitic attacks. Yet, he also received thousands of letters from ordinary citizens — including fellow congregants at his northern Virginia synagogue, Congregation Adat Reyim.

In this screenshot, Michael van der Veen, an attorney for former president Donald Trump, listens as the clerk read a question from Senator Bill Cassidy, during Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate at the US Capitol in Washington, February 12, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

“I received thousands of letters from people. Jews and non-Jews, recent immigrants and people who could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower,” said Vindman, who is now pursuing a PhD in policy at Johns Hopkins University. “So many people recognized themselves in my story. It was pretty awesome and lightened some of the burden then.”

Here, Right Matters: An American Story,
by Alexander Vindman

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Speak for a moment about your family’s motto, “Start over and keep starting over.”

Alexander Vindman: My father had to start over many times — as a 9-year-old boy fleeing Kyiv as the Nazis advanced, and many times after. Then having to make the cold calculation as a 47-year-old about whether to spend the rest of his adult life under a regime where antisemitism was increasing.

At the time there were strict restrictions and quotas on how many people could enter higher education. Even though he was in a significant position of power by then, he knew the prospects were going to be limited for us. So he took my brothers and my grandma and we fled. We went first to Vienna and then to Rome, where he had to make a call between going to Israel or to the US.

Carol Kitman first started photographing Yevgeny, left, and Alexander Vindman in 1980. (Carol Kitman/via JTA)

Why did he choose the United States over Israel?

He was open to Israel, but he had it in his mind that he could save my mother’s life if he came to the US. So that pointed him in the direction of coming here. I do think after she passed away he had to deliberate [again] about whether to go to Israel or to the US, and he chose the US, and here I am.

Can you speak to how that is also part of the immigrant mindset, and to some extent the Jewish mindset as it pertains to having so often been refugees?

I don’t necessarily believe that having to keep starting over is in the Jewish DNA, but I suppose you can also glean some insight from a people who have been scattered across the world and who have had to repeatedly start over. It’s an interesting notion to connect [the family motto] to the larger Jewish experience. While not constantly having to reinvent ourselves, we have had to start life anew in different places.

The Vindman twins Alexander and Yevgeny are seen in the mid-1990s. (Carol Kitman/via JTA)

There’s a Bill Mauldin cartoon depicting a person wrapped in a flag with the caption, “It’s a flag, not a blindfold.” You wrote about being raised to respect the truth. However, for the past few years we’ve seen a rise in disinformation and misinformation. How do you think we change that?

Part of where the title of the book, “Here, Right Matters,” comes from the idea that this country is different. I believe it’s an exceptional country, in a deserved kind of way. But there are existing fissures in this country that political actors in the US and abroad are exploiting. It’s the hydraulic fracking of our society, to use a contemporary metaphor. Political predators like Donald Trump see some weaknesses and the opportunity to exploit them.

There are existing fissures in this country that political actors in the US and abroad are exploiting

Those fissures are deep and longstanding. I think part of them stem from unresolved issues with regards to things like systemic racism. They also come from the US falling behind and not sufficiently retooling for the 21st century, from domestic policies for the past 30 years. Now we have people who have deep grievances about their lives and the lives of their children. We also have politicians who see utility in manipulating that concern and in using the flag to wrap their notions of populism and nationalism.

When my book first came out, I made it a point to wear an American flag lapel pin. I think it’s important to reclaim it as symbol — not of the far right, not as a toxic symbol of patriotism like an American flag fluttering from the back of a pickup truck with Trump signs, but as the American flag that represents the population. As the American flag that was out on September 12, [2001].

Former National Security Council Director for European Affairs Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman returns to the Capitol to review transcripts of his testimony in the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump, in Washington, November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

During the impeachment proceedings some compared your situation to that of Alfred Dreyfus. What did you make of that?

I didn’t make that much of it. It doesn’t really resonate with me. As a junior historian I don’t think it was quite like that. I think in that case it was the military casting about looking for scapegoats and the political class not seeing what the right thing to do was. In my case it was the political class, at least the part of it on the far right, that was looking for opportunities to assassinate my character, or at least cast a shadow on it, and the military being too weak-kneed to respond.

Do you have any plans to run for office?

It’s a potential possibility, but it’s something I’m frankly not interested in. I would do so reluctantly if I felt I needed to do it, like unseating an undesirable elected official. Right now I feel I have a pretty powerful voice and I can use it without constraining myself. I can speak my own mind and be the master of my own destiny.

In the book you describe the paintings on the wall of 2E94 in the Pentagon, also known as “The Tank.” One of them is of Ulysses S. Grant, who said, “If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence. The dividing line will be between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.” Are we at that moment of crisis now?

You are either pro-Trump or pro-democracy. I’m going to describe it that way, pro-Trump or pro-democracy, you can’t be both.

You can’t heal when you have an open and festering wound, which is Trumpism and corruption

I think there has to be a plan to bring people together. I think Joe Biden ran on the idea of unity, but post-Trump we’re not seeing a lot of effort to bring the country together. I see it as you can’t heal when you have an open and festering wound, which is Trumpism and corruption. The ointment, the treatment, for that is accountability. If you hold people accountable you can expose the lies, but right now there’s not a huge effort to communicate that need for accountability to the public.

How do we get to that accountability?

You need to have a way to make the vision a reality. The way you do that is you say, “[Accountability for the US Capitol riot of this past] January 6 is something I’m willing to put my presidency on the line for.” We can’t have January 6 be a rehearsal for the next insurrection. And it’s not just about accountability for the folks on the street who were inflamed by a political class that is not being held accountable.

I’d like to see some good old-fashioned muscular presidency like Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to see some good old-fashioned muscular presidency like Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Our greatest presidents would not sit back passively and watch our country deteriorate.

And voting rights has to be non-negotiable. Anyone who stands in the way of voting rights, be they Democrats or Republicans, should bear a cost.

Your father left the Soviet Union to escape rampant antisemitism. Antisemitism is on the rise here, not only from right, but also the left. What’s been your experience with antisemitism?

For me, there have been maybe a handful of times where I’ve felt any overt antisemitism. A couple of those might have been in the military, but I had the authority and ability to make corrections. Like a junior officer saying, “I’ll Jew you down,” and me being able to explain to them why that is not appropriate. I’m not even sure I’d describe it as antisemitism. It’s more like a stereotypical trope from someone who had very little interaction with Jews.

The antisemitism we’re seeing now is a throwback to neo-Nazism and white supremacy that leaves little room for anything else but white Protestantism.

So it’s a rising issue, and, as you said not just on the right, but also the left with its boycotts of Israel and calling it an apartheid state. I think there needs to be solidarity in the Jewish community which doesn’t exist at the moment, because it’s also so polarized between right and left.

Alexander Vindman marries his wife, Rachel, in 2006. (Carol Kitman/via JTA)

Going back to the phone call. It was of course a moment that defined your career, but you say it doesn’t define you.

I refuse to be defined by that moment. It gives a clear understanding of who I am, but I’m not going to be defined as someone who sits in opposition to Trump and Trump criminality. I still have lots of aspirations, including helping to advance US national security interests, contributing to community and society, and raising a daughter.

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